Drumming is a primitive urge almost written in our DNA—one of the first sounds we hear while still in the womb is the beat of our mother’s heart; our own veins throb; and our breath follows a certain pattern. Numerous studies have shown a wealth of mental health benefits from such rhythmical therapy, the implication being that repetitive beating somehow synchronises with the pulsation of our brain waves.
Other research has shown that it may even be beneficial in boosting immunity and accelerating physical healing, while also helping the focusof sufferers of Alzheimer’s and autism. Such primal pounding has been practised across cultures across the world across the far reaches of time.
“There is something about that noise, about that bass that resonates with people,” says Heathcliff Rongo, a teacher at Tamashii Taiko Drummers in Panmure. “It’s a great stress reliever also, that deep sound is almost like a punch bag.”
Taiko drumming is a Japanese tradition thousands of years in the making (taiko means ‘big drum’), once used to send messages between villages, for military marches and to communicate with the gods. Now, it is a performance, a musical art form that still speaks to our inner beast, and its popularity in western countries is booming. Banging on a single drumskin with a pair of sizeable sticks may seem like simple task, but this writer can attest there’s more than a knack to it. Heath compares it to training in martial arts. “To start with, most people tend to smash into the drums,” says Heath who fell for the practice on a trip to Japan five years ago. “Firstly, that’snot good for the drums! But it’s impossible to maintain that energy long-term. The idea is to have your feet rooted to the ground, like tree trunks, there for support and to generate power. You must have a strong base, and the power must come from the big muscles — your legs, your butt, your core — the arms should be relaxed. You need to pay attention to such little details.”
The drums, which come in various sizes, can be positioned up high, slung over the shoulder, or angled on the floor to be played in a crunch-like pose. Heath says masters dedicate their entire lives to perfecting just one drum. Indeed, watching the synchronised swinging limbs in full flow is just as hypnotic as the throbbing beat.
“Anyone can pick it up, but of course if does help if you have some natural sense of rhythm,” Heath adds. “It just depends on what level you want to get to. Some people are attracted to the social aspects of the classes, some are here for the exercise — it is a full body workout — while others want to progress to take part in performances. Some people see it as a meditative experience, but personally I’m not a spiritual person, I just enjoy the music.” And he’s darn good at it too.
- Drums range in size — the smallest around the size of adinner plate, the largest the size of a car. The most common is comparable to a wine barrel.
- There are more than 8,000 taiko groups in Japan, and each region has its own philosophies — some incorporate other instruments like flutes, others can be more concerned with the visual performance.
- Traditional drums were made from dried trunks of the zelkova tree, and it took several years for them to dry enough to not split. Depending on the style, thesticks are crafted from different woods such as oak or cypress, and all produce different sounds.
- The drum skins are made from cow hide.
- Grunts or the chanting of Japanese syllables are often included to embolden the sound, or just help keep the rhythm. The word kata denotes the movement and posture of the playing, and is among the most important aspects.
- The four key principles for the purest expression of taikoare: attitude, form, technique, and energy.
- You’ll find classes in all New Zealand’s main centres — the first group was founded in Palmerston North by Japanese university students more than a decade ago.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces